Monthly Archives: April 2018
Fastpitch softball pitching: understanding the back side of the circle
I can’t believe we’re still having this discussion in 2018 (as I write this, for those of you finding it in the future as you ride along in your self-driving, flying cars) but it’s amazing to me how many players, parents, team coaches, and yes, even pitching coaches, don’t understand what the arm throwing arm should be doing on the back side of the circle. That’s the part where the ball goes from directly overhead to down and through release.
I see it when I’m walking through a facility or past a field where someone is giving a pitching lesson. I hear it from parents of my students telling me horror stories about their daughter’s first practice with the new team coach. I get emails from around the country about it.
The story is pretty much the same. Whoever is offering the “instruction” says the following: “At the top of the circle, point the ball toward second base, with your arm stretched high. Then push the ball face down through the back side of the circle, until you get to the bottom. Then snap your wrist and finish high, with your elbow pointed at the catcher.” That last part is often referred to as a “hello elbow.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. I could tell you all the technical reasons why it’s not a good idea – how it hurts speed and accuracy, how it works against the way our bodies are designed, and so forth. But probably the best reason not to do it is this: NO HIGH-PERFORMING PITCHER DOES THAT. Not even the ones who tell you to do it.
Why? Because it hurts speed and accuracy, works against the way our bodies are designed, etc. And ultimately limits your ability to do your very best.
No need to debate the point, however. Let’s just take a look at what a few very high-level, successful pitchers do when they pitch. Run the videos, then pause them at the top and see which way the ball is facing. Then take a look at what they do through the rest of the circle – bent elbow v. straight arm, whipping the ball through the zone from back to front, long, loose, natural release instead of a forced arm raise. HINT: Once the video is paused, you can step through it by pressing the “,” key to move backwards and the “.” to go forwards.
I could point to more, but you get the point. Of course, if you want to see more, go to YouTube, search for a top pitcher and watch the video. You’ll find they do the same thing (more or less, depending on the pitch).
Now, I realize I’m running the risk of the Backfire Effect. Parents who are investing money in their kids being taught those poor mechanics, or pitching coaches who are making money teaching them, may decide to double down on their beliefs. No one likes to admit they’re wrong.
But the proof is in the pudding. Or in this case in the videos.
If you’re a parent taking your daughter to pitching lessons, and you hear her being told to turn the ball toward second and push it face-down through the back of the circle, my advice to you is to politely stop the lesson, feign a family emergency, and run (not walk) away. Then find a pitching coach who teaches what you see in the videos above.
If you’re a pitching coach teaching that stuff, it’s time to refresh your knowledge so you can be sure you’re helping your students become the best they can be. Presumably, that’s what you’re in it for, so use the tools we have available today to find out what makes the best the best, and teach to that standard. It’s not easy changing what you’re doing – I’ve had to do it before – but it’s worth the effort.
When softball coach and player preferences clash
There’s an old saying that if a hitter can hit .400 (or whatever number you prefer) standing on her head, the coach’s job is to get her a pillow. It’s really just a snazzier way of saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Yet for many coaches, it’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to tinker. I get that you can always improve on something. But as they say in Bull Durham, a player on a streak has to respect the streak. (WARNING: This clip is definite NSFW so use earbuds.)
Coaches need to as well. They may believe in their hearts that hitters should always go after the first pitch, because pitchers are likely to throw strikes to try to get ahead.
But if the player feels more comfortable letting that first one go by, AND in doing so can perform well later in the count, it makes sense to let her do it. After all, Ted Williams rarely swung at the first pitch and he seemed to do ok considering he’s generally thought to be the greatest MLB hitter ever.
The same goes for calling pitches. The coach may be a huge fan of throwing low and outside, but if that’s not a pitcher’s strength you’re just asking for her to get lit up.
Or take the case of a favorite pitch. The coach may be a huge fan of the screwball, or the riseball, or some other pitch. But if the pitcher has better pitches in her arsenal, it makes more sense to rely more on those. Coaches may love the idea of speed, but if you don’t throw some changeups now and then hitter will eventually time the pitches and then it’s bye bye speed pitch.
I’ve talked lots of times about getting stuck in certain philosophies, such as sacrifice bunting a runner to second every time you get one of first with no outs. Not only doesn’t it make sense mathematically, it also makes you very predictable.
And why play for one run all the time when you have a lineup that can put up multiple runs in an inning?
One of my favorite stories involves the U.S. Olympic team, I believe in 2004. When Lisa Fernandez wasn’t pitching, she started at 3rd base and hit cleanup. But when she was pitching, the team would use a DP in her place, because back then (and really up until recently) the “book” said you DP for the pitcher.
In an interview Mike Candrea said he finally realized that every time he put his best pitcher into the game he was taking out one of his best bats, which was foolish. By bucking conventional wisdom and letting her hit for herself, he not only kept her bat in the lineup but actually added one more by using the DP for someone that didn’t hit as well.
One Gold Medal later that looked like a pretty good idea. And you’re starting to see a lot more of that thinking in the college game today.
As coaches we all have our preferences, beliefs, and philosophies. They may have worked for us in the past, but we always have to be mindful of the present.
Rather than getting caught up in “shoulds,” we need to focus on what is.
Oh, and if you are a player, keep this mind. From time to time, you’ll probably be told to do this or that by a well-meaning coach. If you’re struggling or under-performing, it may be a good idea.
But if you’re kicking butt and taking names, think about this. If you don’t follow that advice but keep performing, the coach may not be happy with you but will likely leave you in anyway. He/she would be foolish to take you out and hurt the team’s chances of winning just to prove a point. If you do follow the advice and your success rates goes down, however, you’ll likely find yourself on the bench eventually.
Not an easy choice, I know. But that’s the reality. Hopefully, however, your coach will be one who keeps a ready supply of pillows around.
Sometimes taking personal responsibility doesn’t work
For the last couple of posts, I have been talking about fastpitch softball players taking personal responsibility for their playing time and experience. The first post spoke generally about the importance of looking to yourself first if you aren’t satisfied with your role, while the second told an uplifting story of a player who followed these principles to great success.
Yet sometimes you can do all of that and it still doesn’t work out. Doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do – you always want to focus on the things you can control first. But sometimes the uncontrollables overwhelm even your best efforts.
That hit home for me after the first post came out. I received a lot of positive comments and appreciative messages. Players were happy for the encouragement, and coaches who are trying to motivate their teams said they were going to share it with their players.
I also received a message on Facebook from a young woman telling me a story about how she worked hard at every practice and every game, was always there, always on time, was a good and supportive teammate, performed when she had the chance, and essentially did everything I talked about.
She told me despite those efforts, her coach still played other girls who weren’t nearly as dedicated and didn’t work nearly as hard ahead of her. Some of those girls would even miss practice for social events, and even then things didn’t change. She and her mom talked to the coach about it but he said he wasn’t going to penalize them for it, which left a bad taste in her mouth.
Then she said the thing I was dreading most: “And that coach was you.”
Yes, that’s right. Much as I have always tried to be good and fair, and have talked about treating players right, I haven’t always walked the walk.
This particular set of events happened fairly early in my coaching career, when I was more of a volunteer parent coach than a true coach. While there’s a long story behind it, I essentially allowed myself to get put in a position where I essentially lost control of the team.
It’s a situation I often refer to in business as well as athletics as being “the Queen of England.” You have a ceremonial title, but you your actual level of authority is weak. The masses tolerate you, but will turn on you in heartbeat if you go against their wishes.
No excuses. I let it happen, and I didn’t know enough at the time how to regain control. I was also far too concerned about what other people thought and how they would react. I let myself get talked into carrying too many players to placate a certain contingent on the team.
As I recall we ended up with 17 or 18 when we should have had 12. And in the end, a couple of great, dedicated players who weren’t part of what I will call the “rebel contingent” wound up with far less playing time than they deserved, while others had it pretty soft.
When this former player messaged me about it, my only answer (other than I’m sorry) was that I had learned a lot as a coach since then. In fact, that particular year definitely had an effect on how I approached running a team going forward.
For better or for worse, I become much more of a leader than a caretaker. Not saying every decision I made from then on was right. But from that point on I had a reason for everything I did. And I made sure to value the players and families who showed dedication and loyalty to the team, even when it was personally inconvenient to them, over those who put themselves first.
So coaches, I’d say learn from my mistakes. Don’t let a small but vocal contingent (or even a single person) influence you into going against your philosophy. This is especially important for new or young coaches who are just finding your way.
Also, recognize and reward the players who are giving you their very best every day – the ones who are taking personal responsibility – because they are the ones who will take you the farthest, and stand by you when things get tough.
Most of all realize that if you want to be popular coaching is the wrong way to go about it. Especially being a head coach.
People are always going to be unhappy with you – some justified, some not. If that’s a problem you may want to re-think your position, because you will have to make tough decisions and live with the consequences. Which could include losing people you thought were your friends. Or creating some extra headaches for yourself. You have to decide whether it’s worth it.
For me, this particular story has a happy postscript by the way. The former player who contacted me said she still liked me as a coach despite what happened, and felt she had a positive experience overall. I’m happy about that, because she definitely deserved better.
She has a daughter now, and perhaps someday she will coach her daughter’s softball team. If she does, I know she’ll be sure not to make this same mistake. And her players will reap the benefits.
What taking personal responsibility looks like
In my last post, I talked about the need for players to take personal responsibility when it comes to playing time. The idea is to control things you can control, like your effort, being on time, always being prepared, keeping a positive attitude (yes attitude is a choice), etc. rather than focusing on factors such as whether the coach likes you, or politics are at play, or things like that.
That’s great in the abstract. You’ll hear that sort of thing all the time. Here’s a great video of UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez talking about how she observes (and ultimately judges) players.
But how well does it work in real life? Let me share a story with you about a college player who has worked her way into the starting lineup by following these principles, and then taken the maximum advantage of that opportunity.
Her name is Taylor Danielson, and she is a freshman at the University of Indianapolis (UIndy), one of the top D2 softball programs in the country. Longtime readers know I’m a big fan of Taylor’s, and have been for a long time.
Taylor is a catcher, and a terrific one. That’s what she was recruited for at UIndy, and eventually I think she’ll wind up behind the plate.
But to start her freshman season, UIndy already had someone in that position they liked. Rather than complain that life is unfair, or get angry that she wasn’t “being given a fair chance” like many people would, Taylor kept working hard and getting herself ready for whatever opportunities she did get.
It didn’t take long. The coaches liked what she was showing in the batting cage, so they decided to see how the freshman would handle the jump to college pitching. They made her the DP, which meant she hit but didn’t play the field.
After a “close but no cigar” start, Taylor started ripping into the ball, becoming a significant contributor on offense. You can check out her stats here. As of this writing they’re pretty impressive. Or you can just check out this video.
If nothing else, it definitely demonstrates that if you can hit, the coach will find a place for you in the lineup.
Next, the coaching staff decided to see what she could do on the field. She’s done a little catching, but most of her innings have come elsewhere. So far this season she has started in left, right, and at second base. (Again, this is after being recruited as a catcher.)
Basically, rather than worrying about what SHE wanted to do, Taylor took the mindset of “whatever you need, I’m there.” In fact, as she started to gain innings in the outfield she asked the coaches if she could take extra practice time with the outfielders to make sure she was ready.
So, you may wonder how she made such an impression. I recently had the chance to watch her play and can tell you one of the factors.
Taylor was in left on a chilly day. There wasn’t a lot of action out her way, but every now and then a hitter would get around on a pitch and pull it foul down the left field line.
Most players probably would have jogged after the ball to retrieve it. No one would blame them either. But not Taylor.
Instead, she sprinted after every one of those obvious foul balls as if the game was on the line. There was just a joy about her, that she had this opportunity to play the sport she loved. Although there is also a school of thought that says it was a convenient way for her to raise her body temperature a bit in the cold and the wind. 🙂
Now, it is possible to put in all that work, hustle, be a good teammate and all that and still not have it work. My next post will talk about a situation where that scenario did occur.
But in the end, you want to know you did everything you could to be successful. If you’re going to fail, fail doing your best.
Taylor took her best shot, and it has paid off bigtime. Perhaps you can generate similar results.